14 Sep 2017

New Zealand's ever expanding houses

From Nights, 7:12 pm on 14 September 2017

Since the 1950s homes in New Zealand have been getting bigger and bigger.

In 1976 the average new house in New Zealand was 121 square meters, in 1996 it was 175 square metres and in 2006 209 square meters. Now houses are about 220 square metres. Back in the 1950s we made do with 110 square metres.

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Photo: Flickr

These expanding houses often have the same number of bedrooms as did the 1950s version.

A researcher at Otago University's department of Public Health, Helen Viggers, has been looking at the impacts these large houses are having on us; the cost of housing, lighting, heating and cooling them.

She says people seem to like the idea of more interior space and developers like to build big too.

“It seems like a good idea to have a bigger house and when we sell our houses we advertise them by the square meter in Britain they advertise the number of rooms.”

But at what cost? Despite insulation standards improving since the mid-seventies we are still using the same amount of energy to heat our houses as we did then.

“It [energy use] has been constant, we haven’t managed to improve that at all and I find that really sad that the increasing size of our houses has cancelled out the benefits of insulation.”

And we’re not designing these bigger houses very well either, she says.

“They’ve become long and skinny, rather than square, so that enough day light gets in. But all of this means you get a greater heat loss area. I don’t deny the prettiness, but they’re not very efficient.”

14072016 Photo: Rebekah Parsons-King. Hobsonville is booming. Around 20% of the homes being built here will be affordable homes.

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Outer suburbs, where large houses that fill almost entire sections are more common, could become future ghettos, Viggers says.

“I’m wondering whether these large spread out sub-divisions are going to become effectively a ghetto of the future because of the energy to heat them, the price of petrol is only likely to increase and it will cost more money proportionally for people to go to work or go to other places. There aren’t always wonderful services in those communities.”

New Zealand lacks examples of good quality high and medium density housing for people to aspire to, she says. And the price-per-square-metre model keeps driving bigger homes.

“We can say that people who build think it’s a good idea [to build big houses] whether or not the people who buy them think it’s a good idea is something else. Developers want to make money and are risk averse they know if they build a larger house people will pay more money for it.’

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Photo: RNZ

She says Housing New Zealand could have a role bringing good design to the fore.

“State housing could have a role in building aspirational medium and high density housing, this can be done and this is how it is done, 1950s state housing was aspirational to some degree. “

Despite out houses getting bigger, build quality and design is frequently poor.

“We need to design houses that can cope with our damp climate, houses that can stay warm and be well ventilated. If we could aspire to that, rather than bigger houses it would be a step in the right direction.”